John Morris, III, M.D.: Levothyroxine, the name for synthetically made thyroid hormone, is the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States. There are millions of patients that take thyroid hormone.

Dennis Douda: The thyroid — it's a butterfly shaped gland that resides just below the Adam's apple. Unless it acts up, you probably never give it a thought.  Problem is, it acts up for a lot people. 

John Morris, III, M.D.: About 8-10 percent of women in the United States will have thyroid disease or dysfunction at some point in their life and 2-3 percent of men, perhaps more.

Dennis Douda: Mayo Clinic's Dr. John Morris, III, is a gland specialist, called an endocrinologist. He says a thyroid's main purpose is making essential hormones.   

John Morris, III, M.D.: A thyroid hormone is important in the metabolism of basically every cell, every tissue, every organ in the body.

Dennis Douda: A century ago, Dr. Morris says, a lot of patients coming to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota were seeking help for problems caused by thyroid hormone imbalances — often causing goiters, a swelling in the neck. He says performing surgery for thyroid goiters kept the Mayo brothers quite busy.

John Morris, III, M.D.: And it was in fact, that early business of the Mayo Clinic that was the impetus to bring Edward Kendall to Mayo Clinic, because there was a lot of thyroid disease here.

Dennis Douda: Edward C. Kendall was a young chemist from New York who was obsessed with unlocking the thyroid's secrets.  So in the southwest corner of the brand new and aptly named 1914 Building, Kendall set up his lab and made good progress during his first summer and fall at Mayo Clinic, purifying thyroid compounds.

John Morris, III, M.D.: And actually, as the story goes, he came in on Christmas Eve in 1914 to do one additional round of purification and to try to crystallize this newest preparation. On Christmas morning he went in to the laboratory, and he had crystal powders of purified thyroid hormone, the first time the hormone from the thyroid — that we now call thyroxin — had been purified.

Dennis Douda: The discovery is the reason so many people have this potentially life-saving medication today.

Angela Dispenzieri, M.D.: I mean, I could be dead, actually, by now.

Dennis Douda: Angela Dispenzieri is one of Edward Kendall's very appreciative fans.

Angela Dispenzieri, M.D.: Never really been sick a day in my life, and about 5 years ago I started noticing a fast heart rate and feeling sweaty, feeling dizzy.

Dennis Douda: Dr. Morris diagnosed Angela with Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Her problem wasn't too little thyroid hormone, referred to as hypothyroidism, but too much (or hyperthyroidism). 

John Morris, III, M.D.: It affects the heart and the nervous system. It causes weight loss. It increases the metabolism so that the patients need to eat more and more in order to just maintain their weight.

Dennis Douda: To shut off the out of control gland, Angela drank a radioactive iodine solution,  basically killing her thyroid tissue. That means her body no longer produces any thyroxin. But she has an inexpensive take-once-daily solution, thanks to Kendall's discovery.

Angela Dispenzieri, M.D.: Some days I take that pill and I'm like, "Wow, this is modern medicine."

Dennis Douda: She should know.  Angela is also Dr. Dispenzieri, a Mayo Clinic cancer researcher credited with a number of ground-breaking discoveries herself.

Angela Dispenzieri, M.D.: I mean discovery in medicine is amazing then; it's amazing now.

Dennis Douda: Edward Kendall wasn't through. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1950 for his contributions to isolate and identify cortisone. His Nobel certificate and medal now reside in the Mayo Clinic archives. In contrast to the high technology equipment researchers rely on today, Dr. Morris says Kendall's accomplishments are even more impressive.

John Morris, III, M.D.: The equipment was very large and bulky, huge glass beakers and vials and flasks and long, tall columns.

Dennis Douda: And yet, the mysteries Edward Kendall unlocked in his Mayo Clinic laboratories decades ago will continue to help patients into the future.

Sept. 07, 2018